Vested interest

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Just a follow-up to earlier posts (1) on shale gas drilling (fracking) Still wrong to be forgotten and (2) on the problems of research performed on the behalf of companies with vested interests in a process or a product Flattering flaws

In the first, I discussed a heavily redacted report which had been released by the UK government on problems associated with fracking; the report, evidently, was intended to present the facts and so promote  unbiased discussion and informed argument – difficult when so much of the paper was censored.

The post on research and vested interest discussed, inter alia, unsubstantiated claims made in a press release posted by the plagiarism software company, the company behind Turnitin and The press release stated “the number of retractions in scholarly publications doubled between 2010 and 2011,” and cited the well-respected blog Retraction Watch as the source of this information. There was and is nothing in Retraction Watch to this effect (confirmed by one of the blog’s authors), and I made the point that, even if the statement about the doubling of the number of retractions was true, there is nothing to suggest that the retractions due to plagiarism had doubled; on the other hand, might possibly be thought to have a vested interest in promoting plagiarism hysteria, the better to sell its products.

[It was verifying this for the present story which led to my discovery that iThenticate has since removed the erroneous claim that plagiarism doubled in scientific papers in the years 2010-2011. In its stead is an equally erroneous post regarding a ten-fold increase in the rate of retraction of scientific papers over the past 20 years. This second claim is attributed to an article in Nature – which had indeed reported on a study which demonstrated a ten-fold increase in the rate of retraction, but the period under review was more than 36 years, not the 20 years of the iThenticate story (see Memory hole).]

I have Retraction Watch to thank again, for a report which draws together these threads, fracking and vested interest. In the post Undisclosed industry funding prompts correction of fracking paper, Adam Marcus reports on a research paper published in Environmental Science & Technology. The abstract of “Methane Concentrations in Water Wells Unrelated to Proximity to Existing Oil and Gas Wells in Northeastern Pennsylvania” states that the researchers “found no statistically significant relationship between dissolved methane concentrations in groundwater from domestic water wells and proximity to pre-existing oil or gas wells” – and had suggested that the difference in findings to earlier studies (which found significant differences) was because the data-sets used in the EST study were far larger than those used in the earlier studies.

As may be. According to Inside Climate News, “Industry welcomed the Siegel study, the largest ever evaluating methane in water near gas development, as evidence of the safety of hydraulic fracturing.”  Well, it would, wouldn’t it?

But, as Retraction Watch reports, the journal has now published a correction, signed by the authors, which states that the data-sets they used were supplied by the Chesapeake Energy Corporation (a company which might be thought to have vested interest in the outcome of the research?) – and that the lead author of this research paper “was funded privately by Chesapeake for this work,”  a declaration of interest which had not been declared in the original paper.

What is more, again according to the Inside Climate News report, another of the authors was employed by Chesapeake for some of the time the study was taking place, and has since taken up permanent employment with Chesapeake.  This too was not disclosed when the paper was submitted.

The authors are reported as claiming that their connections with Chesapeake did not influence their research and their findings, and that they did not breach Environmental Science & Technology‘s requirements regarding disclosure of bias, funding, relationships or other interest.

May be.

It matters not how honest and accurate and complete the study is; when those with vested interests are too closely involved in data-collection, analysis, interpretation and conclusion; when possibly-vital pieces of information are hidden and facts are withheld, there are bound to be suspicions, it seems there is something to hide.

Full disclosure and complete honesty is essential. In my earlier post, I mentioned Bad pharma, a book in which Ben Goldacre described the problems for doctors and for patients when – for whatever reason – only positive results of drug trials are published and negative results are falsified or are not published at all. Goldacre makes the point, right at the start of his book:

Before we get going, we need to establish one thing beyond any doubt: industry-funded trials are more likely to produce a positive, flattering result than independently-funded trials … this is one of the most well-documented phenomena in the growing field of ‘research about research’ (Goldacre, Bad pharma, p. 1).

Controversies regarding shale gas drilling suggest that fracking is just as much a matter of life-and-death, the potential for disaster on a local scale and further is huge. The public and those in position to make decisions need the full facts. When those with vested interest present information which might be tainted, wise decision-making is not well-served.

For us, the public, the reader, the consumer (the consumed?), vigilance is necessary. When we are told how good something is, it always behooves us to wonder, how do we know, who is behind the research, what aren’t we being told? Who stands to benefit?

Complete disclosure and independent review are essentials, else we may be shackled and hoodwinked.

Caveat emptor.

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